it is as Mozart's librettist that we know his name today, perhaps
Da Ponte himself might have preferred to be remembered as the
indefatigable pioneer who gave Americans an awareness of the literary
and musical heritage of his native land, opening their eyes to
splendors they had never seen or dreamt of before. -Sheila
The librettist for three of Mozart's operas (Le nozze di Figaro,
Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte) was
born in 1749, the son of a Jewish tanner, and was named Emanuele
Conegliano. America was a British colony, and George Washington
was still a schoolboy. When the boy was five, his mother died
and the children ran wild; by the age of eleven he could scarcely
read or write. When he was fourteen, his father, then forty, fell
in love with a girl of sixteen. Since she was Roman Catholic,
he had to convert in order to be able to marry her. His three
sons were baptized with him. Emanuele took the name of their sponsor,
Bishop Lorenzo Da Ponte, and the boys were taken into the Bishop's
seminary. Although at the time he could barely write a decent
Italian sentence, Lorenzo soon became fluent in Latin. Seminaries
were to train young men for the priesthood. Latin was needed by
priests, so seminaries taught Latin almost exclusively. Luckily
one of the masters also encouraged the boys to study Dante, Petrarch
and other Italian poets. This was the start for Da Ponte of a
life-long love of Italian literature. To buy books he stole leather
from his father and sold it to a shoemaker. When he was found
out, instead of punishing him, the Bishop gave him money to buy
more books. Soon, however, he had to sell his precious volumes
and much of his clothing to help support his family. This was
to become a recurring theme in his life, buying the books he loved,
then selling them to pay his debts. At the age of twenty-one,
Da Ponte was made a teacher at another seminary, and at twenty-four
he was ordained as a priest. Almost immediately he set off for
Venice. At the time, Venice had seven opera houses, and music
was everywhere. It was also one of the most dissolute cities of
Europe, and gambling was a second passion. The motto of the Venetians
was, "A little Mass in the morning, a little gamble in the
afternoon, and a little lady in the evening." The carnival
season lasted six months, during which all the people wore masks,
even the priests.
Da Ponte wrote some poems titled "Whether man is happier
in an organized society or in a simple state of nature."
They caused him to be denounced to the Venetian Senate, and his
subsequent trial made a great sensation. The poems were confiscated,
he was publicly denounced, dismissed from his teaching position,
and he was forbidden to teach anywhere in the Venetian Republic.
Da Ponte stayed on and had several affairs, including one with
a married woman who bore him several children. As was the custom
with illegitimate children, they were turned over to a foundling
hospital. Through all of this he continued to say Mass regularly,
and no one seemed to object. (At the time, many men became priests
and women became nuns, not because they felt called by God, but
for educational and financial reasons.) One of Da Ponte's friends
in Venice was Giovanni Casanova, whose name was to become, along
with "Don Juan," a synonym for a libertine. While Don
Giovanni was based on other sources, Da Ponte's life and
that of his friend certainly enabled him to give verisimilitude
to the opera's title character. Finally, his indiscretions caught
up with him, and he was banished from Venice for fifteen years.
If found there, he was to be imprisoned in a dungeon without light
for seven years.
years and many adventures later, Da Ponte found himself in Vienna
with a letter of introduction to Salieri, the Director of the
Italian Opera and the Court Composer. At the time, Joseph II,
the brother of Marie Antoinette, was the Holy Roman Emperor, and
Vienna was the cultural capital of the world. Joseph introduced
religious toleration and partially emancipated the Jews.
When Da Ponte met the Emperor, Joseph asked him how many plays
he had written. He answered, "None, Sire," and Joseph
replied, "Good. Good! We shall have a virgin muse."
Da Ponte met the eighty-four year old Metastasio, the "Caesarean
Poet to the Roman Emperor" -- the trappings of the Holy Roman
Empire were still taken very seriously -- and hoped to take his
place when he died. Instead, Joseph appointed him to the post
of Poet to the Italian Theatre where, for a generous salary plus
royalties, he was to write new libretti and adapt those of others.
The first composer for whom he was asked to write was Salieri.
The fledgling librettist read 20 works by others to learn how
to write opera texts.
Unfortunately he developed abscesses in his mouth, and it was
recommended that he treat them with nitric acid! The
abscesses disappeared, but so did his teeth. Soon he was completely
Usually Mozart detested rhymes in libretti; words should suit
the music, not be forced into a rhyme. Yet Da Ponte was able to
write in rhymes which fit naturally into Mozart's music. Even
libretti adapted from other sources were his own. He did not copy,
but rewrote the text completely, using his skill to turn prose
into verse suitable for singing. However, other than those written
for Mozart, the many libretti for which Da Ponte was responsible
have largely been forgotten.
shy about his own abilities, in his memoirs, Da Ponte took full
credit for Mozart's success:
Though gifted with talents superior perhaps, to those of any other
composer in the world, past, present or future, Mozart has, thanks
to the intrigues of his rivals, never been able to exercise his
divine genius in Vienna, and was living there unknown and obscure,
like a precious jewel buried in the bowels of the earth and hiding
the refulgent excellence of its splendors. I can never remember without exultation and
complacency, that it was to my perseverance and firmness alone
that Europe and the world in great part owe the exquisite vocal
compositions of the admirable genius.
When Joseph died, Da Ponte fell out of favor with the new Emperor,
Leopold, and quarreled with Salieri. Again he had to flee, ending
up in Trieste. There he met a well-to-do German, John Krahl, and
became friends with his daughter. When the man to whom she was
then engaged asked about her dowry, the enraged Krahl forbade
the marriage. Instead he offered her to Da Ponte, and they were
joined "with social ceremonies and formalities." There
is no evidence they were legally married at the time. He was still
a Catholic priest! The "newlyweds" set off for Paris
with a letter of introduction to Marie Antoinette; hearing of
the capture of King Louis XVI and his Queen, they changed their
course for London.
arrived in London, the Da Pontes' only possessions were six louis,
a gold watch and a ring. Since the Anglican Church permits priests
to marry, they probably had a legal wedding ceremony. For years,
their fortunes went through cycles of good and bad. Finally his
wife and four children went to America to visit her family. They
were supposed to stay a year, but da Ponte was afraid he would
never see them again. Soon he was once more forced to flee creditors,
and he sailed to America himself. Although the voyage took only
57 days, it was so miserable that he remembered it as lasting
86. Among his luggage was a box of violin strings, a number of
Italian classics, several copies of Virgil, and about $40 in cash.
He was to spend the last 33 years of his life in the United States.
time in New Jersey, the Da Pontes moved to New York. One day in
a bookstore, Clement Clarke Moore, best known as the author of
The Night Before Christmas, overheard Da Ponte asking
for Italian books. Their conversation led to Moore's helping him
obtain well-to-do pupils, including his own son, for Italian lessons.
He remained Da Ponte's supporter and friend all his life. Da Ponte
founded the Manhattan Academy for Young Gentlemen. There boys
could learn Italian, French, Latin, writing and ciphering, grammar
and geography. His wife taught French, Italian, the art of making
artificial flowers, drawing and music at the accompanying Manhattan
Academy for Young Ladies.
Ponte was induced to move to Pennsylvania where he tried his hand
in turn as a grocer, distiller, milliner, seller of medicines
and teamster, but recurring financial problems convinced him to
return to New York. He imported Italian books, sometimes selling
them door-to-door, opened a bookstore and became an American citizen.
Appointed Professor of Italian without pay at what was then Columbia
College, he was supposed to collect what fees he could from his
students. He was the first to teach Dante in America, took in
boarders and introduced them to the joys of Italian cuisine. In
his memoirs, he claimed to have imported 26,000 volumes and taught
Italian to 2,500 people. His contributions of books were the foundations
of the Italian collections of Columbia University, The Library
of Congress, and The New York Public Library.
later years were highlighted by a visit to New York by Manuel
Garcia's Italian opera troupe, bringing with him the first New
World Italian performance of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia.
This was such an unusual occurrence that people wrote to the newspapers
asking how they should dress and behave! Da Ponte introduced himself
to Garcia and soon had the great joy of seeing his opera Don
Giovanni once more. He was also involved in the establishment
of the Italian Opera House in New York, built in European style.
died in August 1838, at the age of 89. He was still striking-looking
in spite of his lost teeth. Like his collaborator, Mozart, he
was buried in an unmarked grave, now lost. For his entire life
he had been a gifted teacher, loved by his students. He had sowed
wild oats as a young man, but thereafter lived a conventional,
if rather colorful, life. He was faithful to his wife and a loving
father to his children who all married into New York's best families.
grieve Da Ponte that so little is remembered of his immense contribution
to American culture during the 33 years he spent in the United
States. Born in the age of Voltaire, he died when Karl Marx was
20. He had lived in the glittering last years of the Venetian
Republic, the brilliance of Vienna under Joseph II and the London
of George III, and was forced to leave them all, penniless and
under a cloud. In each case his indomitable spirit enabled him
to build a new life. He was to write: "How wonderful it is
then [that the three operas of Mozart and Da Ponte] are the only
ones which, with every day that passes, are more highly esteemed
and valued in every theatre in Europe: the only ones which can
cry out in triumph, 'WE ARE ETERNAL'."
Livingston, Arthur, ed.: Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte.
1959, Orion Press, New York, 1959.
Fitzlyon, April: The Libertine Librettist. London, JohnCalder,1955.
Hodges, Sheila: Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart's
Librettist. Granada, 1985
San Diego Operapædia